Sherlock deduced the existence of SHIELD early in his days in New York—assisted by the Rising Tide website, by firsthand reports of the battle for New York, and by the simple fact of the NYPD never referring him to a case that touches on so-called superhumans. In a world where they're coming to light, Sherlock might have expected to find one or two on the other side of an interrogation table, given none of them seem to care to live quietly, but he has never found one. Ergo, there must be an organization, probably under the aegis of the United States government, that deals with them all.
His informants among Everyone discuss it on occasion, linked with discussions of whether Thor is truly a god, whether Tony Stark is truly out of the business of making armor, whether the man who wears Captain America's suit now can truly be Captain Rogers (Sherlock is quite certain on his opinions on all of those debates, but no matter how much he shares his reasoning, they insist on continuing to squabble).
On this particular day, Sherlock is waiting for information about a suspect in a burglary when the chat room he is in grows abruptly wild and then abruptly silent. He follows a link, after scanning it thoroughly, and finds himself with information spread in front of him, enough to take days to digest.
The first thing he notes is the name SHIELD—a name for the organization he's been peripherally aware of, and a name in the finest tradition of the Americans, too obvious to be anything but ridiculous for any organization trying to fly under the radar. He is frankly disappointed in them.
The second thing he notes is the name HYDRA, a fairy-story organization from World War Two that now, incredibly, seems to be real (though Sherlock can't muster much surprise—if Captain America is among the living again, it can only stand to reason that other parts of that overly-hyped and much-filtered story must have been true as well). It's not surprising that they dug themselves into the American government, much as the government itself is expressing surprise and horror after twenty minutes of radio silence on all social networks from nearly every member of the federal government.
The third thing he notes is Project Insight, the words coming up constantly as Everyone begins its instant dissection of the information dumped on the internet by, if origins are to be believed, SHIELD itself. At first, it seems a redundant reinforcement of the NSA's spying (and Sherlock is British—he is used to the thought of the government having its eyes on him at all times, even if he finds the NSA's methods of deduction ham-handed and next to useless he is not surprised by them), or of the unit Bell worked for after his injury.
Guessing at a threat beforehand is stupid at best. Sherlock knows better than anyone that crime can be random and chaos is perhaps the only human constant. He lingers, though, on the word “neutralize,” and doesn't need to read on to know what it means.
Sherlock is not given to blowing his own importance out of proportion, but nor is he a humble man. Without testing the algorithm (and he must question the intelligence of whoever placed that anywhere near the unscrupulous internet; will he now be forced to solve murders based off the lists of targets that will come out?), he knows he would have been on the list of those too dangerous for HYDRA to allow to live. They are close enough to Washington that he may in fact have been in the first batch of those to be murdered.
“Sherlock?” Joan asks, coming down the stairs, barefoot and with her hands full of files about the burglary which he will still have to solve, even with all this new data to process. She's frowning. Joan doesn't watch the news while she works, or answer her phone unless it's her mother, but he suspects she knows anyway. It seems to Sherlock that the whole of the world must have heard about SHIELD within the first ten minutes of the files being uploaded, or so the trending topics on Twitter seem to inform him.
“I assume you've heard the news.”
“I checked the news on my phone before I came downstairs. And I thought you would have already found Averill's connection to the antiques trade by now, so I figured something must have been going on.”
I almost died today, Sherlock thinks, and dismisses it for its melodrama. And then, a treacherous and terrible thought, You almost died today. “The greatest piece of information to appear in years, the key to who knows how many unsolved crimes, and you deduced that 'something must have been going on,'” he snaps, too fast. “Well done, Watson.”
“That was before I checked the news, Sherlock, I'm not psychic.” She sighs and holds up the files. “Do you want to hear what I found out about Averill, or do you want to keep reading about superheroes?”
“I would be reading about your government's spying and how easy it is to infiltrate when one recruits Nazis to work in confidential positions, and while I do want to continue, I suppose Gregson will be calling us about our findings shortly. Tell me what you've found, as our friends with Everyone are currently occupied and unable to give me the information I require.”
Joan watches him for a moment, as if wondering what question to ask him or if she ought to ask one at all. He's glad when she holds out the files. “His ex-girlfriend worked at Christie's,” she begins, and proceeds to lay out the information that should give them enough for a warrant, and Gregson enough for an arrest.
That he would have been dead isn't in question. Moriarty as well, which is a comfort and a discomfort at the same time. He doesn't stop to examine that. Alfredo, too, would have most likely perished. He is less sure of Gregson, of Bell, of Ms. Hudson. He would have to do the math to be sure with any of them.
Joan would have died. Perhaps upstairs researching Averill, while he was downstairs talking to Everyone, if HYDRA had not been taken down. Joan is his colleague, and now has the same dangerous things on her record that he does.
Joan would have died, but Sherlock knows, with a feeling that he thinks could be guilt, that before she met him, she would have been safe. She was a doctor, a sober companion. No one would have thought her a threat to the order of the world, no matter her potential. She's chosen her own path, Sherlock will not take responsibility for that, but the knowledge still sits badly with him that his influence grew so close to dooming her.
Any organization that does not believe Joan Watson to be a worthy member of the human race deserves the worst that happens to it. Sherlock knows, after her all-too-recent experience of being held hostage, that he is not entirely rational where the chance of harm to her is involved. HYDRA no longer has the capability to harm her, but nonetheless, he searches deeper in the information (and clever, clever of whoever did it to simultaneously make it impossible for SHIELD and HYDRA to operate in secret but to give enough information, unfiltered, that by the time it was parsed the immediacy for most people would have faded).
Nonetheless, he finds the names of as many HYDRA agents in New York as he can, does research and deduces still more. He learns the secrets of two organizations that might as well have been one. With help from Everyone and a few helpful hackers, he finds his way into Stark Industries' servers and the information therein, and finds that to no one's shock they know more than they let on to the public.
When he has names, when he has proof, he talks to Joan.
Joan looks briefly up from her tea. He allowed her to wake on her own, though he's been ready to speak to her for hours, and she's still fuzzy with the morning, absently feeding Clyde lettuce while she waits for her toast to come up. “Didn't everyone? It's bigger than Watergate, I think everyone wanted as much information as they could get.”
“Mostly only the curious, such as you and I. Did you look into Project Insight?”
“Sure. It was what everyone was talking about the most. A threat targeting program that HYDRA was going to use to murder, right? Why? Does it have something to do with a case?”
“It could.” Sherlock puts the file down on the table. He could have just told her, or showed it to her on the computer, but there's something more impressive about the physical object, in this case. “It isn't precisely deduction, Watson, but it's important work. It's come to my attention that far too few HYDRA operatives have been captured by the authorities, any authorities. By now, of course, many of them will have fled or found new identities, but I have the identities of at least twenty likely operatives in that file, in New York alone. I am sure that between the two of us we can find more.”
She puts her mug down and folds her hands in her lap, watching him more than the file. “Normally you stay as far away as you can from this kind of thing. The institutional work? That's not you.”
“This particular case hit me hard.”
Joan nods, and though she has been his partner for a year now, it's still a pleasure to watch her piece something together, the way it all falls together when things line up right. “The algorithm would have killed you.” She frowns, knowing she hasn't gone far enough. Sherlock has regard for his personal safety, but not enough to do this. “The algorithm would have killed us,” she amends, slowly. Sherlock nods. “You know they aren't coming after us right now, don't you? They're busy running. They took too much of a hit.”
“That does not mean they should be allowed to go free. I can turn this over to the police just as easily, and hope they don't mess it up, but I do not want these people going free.”
“You don't think that people are already going after them? People more qualified?”
“And who would that be, Watson? SHIELD was compromised. Tony Stark has stepped down from his role as Iron Man. The rest of the so-called Avengers are scattered, and they are not detectives. Spies at best, but the skill sets are different, as you know.”
Joan sits there for a moment, still and contemplating. “I need you to be sure this isn't going to damage your recovery. I was with a client when the Chitauri attacked New York, and at the support meetings, everyone was either scared straight or relapsing. There wasn't a lot of middle ground. Are you sure this is going to be safe for you?”
“I am sure. This will not put me in the way of any drugs, or should not, and I don't think it will tempt me any more than other events of the past year have done.” He has his insurance policy, should the world become too much to bear, but this will not make him use it. It may in fact prevent its use. “Your client, during the attack. Which was it?”
“You know I can't tell you that.” She picks her mug up again. “Let me think about it. And if we do it, we do it with the police. We can't just hunt people down. What would we do with them?”
Sherlock nods. “Time can be allowed, though not too much. I would prefer no one had the chance to run.”
Joan nods, and he wonders if she's thinking of Moran, or if she would know to think of Yoder. She does not look agreeable, but all he can ask is that she consider it. He can do this by himself, if need be. “Would we be in danger for this?” she asks after a long moment.
“Highly trained operatives, Watson. I would be shocked if we were safe.” He makes an aborted move to push the file closer to her, but she can do it on her own if she wishes. Instead, he stands and busies himself buttering her toast, which has gone lukewarm since it came up but is at least still crisp. She prefers jam when she's tired, and he puts a liberal amount on before he hands the plate to her. “I am not asking you to make a decision now. If I find an alternate way to bring these people to justice, I will take it. I am a detective, not a spy, unlike my brother.”
“You could always give the list to Mycroft.” She's annoyed with him, then.
“Consider it. I won't endanger you unduly, I promise you that.”
“I know you won't, Sherlock. But I'm not trained for this. You aren't trained for this. You saw everything SHIELD deals with, and you have to assume HYDRA has access.” She centers the plate of toast in front of her and then folds her hands in front of her. “If you can find someone who can use these files without us getting in over our heads, or if I can, will you turn it over to them?”
The revenge doesn't feel personal enough, but perhaps he has no right to revenge, given he and Joan and all the others in his small circle of colleagues and friends are still living. “I'll see if I can find someone,” he says, grudgingly.
Joan nods and picks up her toast. “And I'll think about it.”
Independent superheroes are an intriguing possibility—Spider-Man in Queens, the legend of Daredevil in Hell's Kitchen—but it doesn't take long for Sherlock to dismiss them. They aren't as well-connected, and their scope is smaller.
Joan, it seems, is doing her own research as well, though she is frustratingly close-mouthed on the subject. “What avenues are you trying?” he asks a few days after the initial conversation, when he's growing impatient with the lack of action.
“I'm talking to a few old friends from medical school,” she says, which can't possibly be half the truth from how forced her calm is. “I'm not going to tell you any more than that. And I'm not telling them exactly what you've got, before you ask.”
“I never thought you were,” he says, and goes back to searching for a path that does not involve taking up the cape of vigilante justice. While Watson could no doubt carry off the requisite tight costume with aplomb, Sherlock doesn't relish the thought.
His subtle inquiries lead to less than subtle questions: from Everyone and other users of the internet, mostly, but he suspects the only thing keeping the NSA away from him is the fact that they are in disgrace following the SHIELD leak. No one seems to know more than what was posted online (though of course nearly everything was posted online), and Sherlock grows increasingly frustrated.
“I'm low on options,” he tells Joan after several days' gap in their discussion of the matter. “I have no one to whom I can responsibly pass this information.”
“A friend of a friend may be able to do something. Give it a few more days, she's hard to contact, even harder right now, and my friend says she might be out of the country.”
Sherlock considers who Joan might know who would be of help. Military doctors, perhaps, or other rescue personnel. He can't profess to trust the military any more than he trusts the government, but he can at least have faith in Joan's judgment. “You'll tell me before you give too much information?”
She rolls her eyes. “Obviously. I'm not going to get too deep into something this delicate. I'm not a government agent, and neither are you, and we don't have the resources to go after these people. You know that. Nobody has the resources to go after these people, but I might know someone who can do something. Can you give it another few days?”
He's itching to have the information out of his hands before it becomes entirely useless and outdated, but nonetheless he allows her the privacy she requests. It rankles, but he knows Joan, and he knows when she'll dig her heels in. He can wait if required.
“I don't plan to kill you, Mr. Holmes.” Her accent is bland, American, carefully studied. His guess about espionage seems to be playing out well. “I'm here at the request of a colleague. I owe him a favor, and Ms. Watson contacted him. Judging by your history and Ms. Watson's queries, you have information I could use. Names and locations of HYDRA agents who might or might not have been in the SHIELD files.”
“Are you SHIELD?”
“I was SHIELD. Now I'm not.” She stands. “HYDRA and its remaining agents, however, are at least partially my responsibility. I'm not going to ignore that.”
Far too late for his vanity, Sherlock recognizes her, her fine speech to the government and the clips the news station had played of the blurry footage from the battle against the Chitauri, which Sherlock had been too deep in the needle to view live. “You are very visibly against HYDRA from what I can tell, Agent Romanoff.”
“I'm not an agent of anything.”
“Ms. Romanoff. Do you want the information I have or don't you?”
“How do I know it's worth anything to me?”
He raises his eyebrows. “I doubt you would have bothered to come otherwise, a favor owed or not.”
Her smile is tiny and anything but amused. “You don't know much about me and favors, Mr. Holmes. I'd like to see your information.”
“If you'll allow me a moment to retrieve it, I'll show it to you. I wasn't expecting to be accosted in my own bedroom.”
Romanoff ignores his sally, but he wasn't expecting much of a response. If she came in through his bedroom window undoubtedly she has no guilt about the matter.
Joan is out on a run, so Sherlock doesn't have to make an excuse about picking the folder up from where it's been resting conspicuously on a counter for days now. He brings it up and doesn't bother leafing through his own information again. He knows it. Romanoff hasn't moved an inch, or at least has made a great effort at returning to exactly the place she was in when he left her presence. It's possible she means to unsettle, but Sherlock has no patience for that. He knows Jamie Moriarty, after all. “This is the data. Look it over. If it's useful and if you promise that something will be done about it, you may have it, and if I find more I will be sure to let you know.”
She opens the folder and flips quickly through it, no change in her expression. If Moriarty is a challenge because of how easily she slips into deception, Romanoff is a challenge because of how little she gives away. “Some of these names are new to me,” she finally says. “I'll make sure the right people become aware of them.”
“And the right people, I assume, will stop them?”
“They will.” She shuts the folder and makes no move to give it back. “If you find more names, ask Ms. Watson to get in touch with her friend again. We could use help, Mr. Holmes.”
Sherlock nods. It's not as though he'll stop, now that he knows what lurks out there. “I can't promise anything—I have work that is more than glorified research—but the thought of HYDRA having control still is an uncomfortable one. I could have died, and so could Ms. Watson have. I would prefer that not happen again.”
“We're doing our best to keep that from happening.” She steps around him. “I should be going.”
“Of course. Perhaps you would prefer to exit through the front door?”
Romanoff smiles, though it's hard to be certain if it's genuine. “While I enjoyed seeing your beehive, the door does sound like a better idea.”
Sherlock takes that as the olive branch it must be, a reminder that security on his roof is just as important as in all other areas of the house. “Well then. If you will precede me?”
She does it, as a concession, and he's fully aware that she could still kill him in seconds if she wished, but he appreciates her attempts at politeness. At the door, she offers her hand to shake, to his surprise. “Thank you for your help, Mr. Holmes. Please have Ms. Watson get in touch, as I said.” This smile is small, but seems much more genuine than the one earlier. “We may call on you in the future, if there's a puzzle we can't solve.”
“I shall be on tenterhooks until you call, Ms. Romanoff,” he says, and the smile remains as he lets her out the door, with his file in her hand (though he has his own copy—he may be trusting her, but he is not a fool).
It's mere minutes before Joan returns, a little breathless from her run. It takes all of five seconds after she enters the kitchen to note the absence of the folder. Her skills of observation are certainly improving. “Was someone here?”
“You are a continual surprise, Watson,” he says. “Would you care to tell me which of your acquaintances happens to know the Black Widow?”
“When I was a med student I was involved in helping to teach a paramedic course to some members of a secret military project,” she says, as though it's not information he ought to have had months and months ago. Life with Joan is never dull, and he is more thankful than he will ever be able to express about that. “I knew he would know someone. I didn't think he would know Natasha Romanoff. She was here?”
“Yes, we had a very exciting conversation. I think we may be asked to consult for the Avengers at some point.”
Joan is silent for a moment, digesting that and pouring herself a glass of water. “Okay,” she finally says, and her smile is as small as Natasha Romanoff's but a good deal more genuine.
Sherlock grins at her. “I think it may be time, Watson, to brush up on our information about superpowers.”